THE Department for Transport has performed a u-turn over a proposal to make the Isle of Wight's only National Rail route 'self-sustaining'.
The prospect was outlined in the Invitation to Tender for the next South Western franchise, which envisaged a separation of Island Line from the main franchise, with the longer-term objective of making the route between Ryde and Shanklin subsidy-free.
The ITT said the objective was to: "Work with the Isle of Wight Council to secure a long-term sustainable solution for the future of the Island Line during the course of the next franchise that will enable it to become a self-sustaining business.”
Protestors started a legal challenge to this proposal, saying that with costs running at two or three times revenue and assets -- including the trains -- in need of renewal, closure could become inevitable, which would damage the island's transport infrastructure and the local economy.
They also pointed out that the South Western franchise is the only one to yield a substantial net profit for the government, with recent premiums topping £100 million a year even after all public support, including a share of Network Rail's direct grant, is taken into account.
Following the publication of the ITT, Island Line users Warren Drew and David Pugh submitted a formal Letter Before Claim to the DfT at the end of July, threatening a Judicial Review. They challenged the 'irrational policy objective' for Island Line.
Writing in the August edition of Railnews, protestor David Pugh had pointed out that "running Island Line as part of a wider franchise offers economies of scale which would be impossible to achieve otherwise. To maintain current service levels in a standalone arrangement would undoubtedly be at a greater public cost, unless key elements around safety and staffing were drastically reduced".
Mr Pugh and Mr Drew, who lead the campaigning group KILF (the Keep Island Line in the Franchise campaign), have now received a response from a government lawyer in which he expresses the DfT’s regret at “the misunderstanding that appears to have arisen from the phrasing of the seventh Franchise Objective and has therefore decided to amend the wording of that Franchise Objective to remove any scope for confusion”.
The revised proposal says that the plan now is to “work with the Isle of Wight Council to secure a long-term sustainable solution to the future of the Island Line during the course of the next franchise that will enable it to become a more sustainable business”.
David Pugh, who is a former council leader on the island, said: "It was indefensible and inequitable, and it is good that the Government has now recognised that.
“This is a victory for all those Island Line users who made representations to the DfT on this point but had been ignored until now.
“This result is even more significant in light of the refusal of our local MP to provide support, leaving us to fight our own corner in Whitehall. Last year Andrew Turner dismissed KILF as a “self-appointed protest group”, yet we have now achieved a major step in the right direction for our local rail service – which is more than he has done as the Island’s representative in Westminster.
“With a new rail minister in place, we are hopeful that the DfT will now start to take a more pragmatic and realistic approach."
The next South Western franchise is due to start in mid-2017. The shortlisted operators include the incumbent Stagecoach Group, which is facing a single competing bid from FirstGroup.